The Buzz: The Alien Goggles
By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent
At the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, one of the scariest, cringe-worthy, and unintentionally "funny" moments was when Michael Phelps threw off his goggles in disgust. They were filled with water in the finals of the 200m butterfly. NBC replayed the images of water pouring out of Phelps' goggles, showing Phelps himself appalled and frustrated. I say "unintentionally funny" because, in the grand scheme of things, no real harm was done -- Phelps won his Olympic gold (though he didn't swim as fast as he probably would have liked) and you can never really re-write history anyway. (In other words, Phelps' goggles miscue affected his mindset, which then gave him more motivation, which then led him to victory in the 100 fly by .01. You can’t second-guess the past, time travelers.)
But I remember watching that moment, and turning to my father, and saying, "What the heck is going on? This is the Olympics. How are Michael Phelps’ -- MICHAEL PHELPS' -- goggles filling up?"
Dad: "Your goggles used to fill up."
Me: "Yeah but I was like, 10."
The problematic "goggles filling with water/flipping off post-dive" is always a factor, whatever age you are. I don't know why this is. I remember applying nearly 1500 pounds/inch pressure onto my goggle strap until my eyeballs bulged and popped out, and STILL having goggle problems. I remember wearing goggles that reformulated my cheekbones just so I'd maximize a watertight goggle seal on my face, and they would STILL leak. I remember, STILL, after all that, having goggle problems, throwing them in disgust a la Mr. Phelps, and then shamefully coming back to the same pair, like a dog with his tail between his legs. Like it was something I had done – like somehow, I was responsible. “Maybe I didn’t put them on right. Maybe I put too much pressure...”
You probably have had this happen, too. You see swimmers behind the blocks fiddling and adjusting goggles until the last seconds prior to diving in. Why? Why does this happen? You don’t see NBA players obsessively working over their shoes seconds before taking the buzzer-beating shot, do you? You don’t see Eli Manning taking off his shoulder pads and putting them back on again seconds before throwing a touchdown pass, do you? Why has this problem never been addressed in swimming?
Flash forward to the Columbus Grand Prix, 2012. I was walking on the pool deck and saw a plethora of swimmers appearing vaguely alien-like, with a mixture of "superhero." They wore rainbow-reflective goggles that looked like something Kenny Powers would wear, or an accessory from a Spiderman Movie -- vaguely alienish + superheroish. The goggles appeared huge and bug-like, with a vast and seemingly panoramic vision span (instead of little quarter-sized vision depth you'd get with typical goggles). With a collective of physically superior beings wearing these things, it gave a terrifying impression that muscular, 6-packed, big-shouldered alien-bugs were invading Earth. To investigate, and shoot some video footage for an upcoming AT&T "Outside The Pool" video, I interviewed the head of the Speedo AquaLab, Dr. Tom Waller.
I wanted to find out, “What’s the deal with these weird-looking Speedo goggles?”
Swimmers are among the most equipment-skeptical people I've ever met. Especially with their beloved, precious goggles. (Swimmers + goggles = a modern version of Gollum.) An average swimmer (rough estimate) spends anywhere between 10-15,000 hours married to one type of goggle, pressed firmly against their eyeballs. It's that intimacy that builds trust and loyalty with a product. (Perhaps why some swimmers wear the same goggles their entire careers. I have used the same pair of goggles for 10 years. I even resurrected them like Frankenstein, employing super-glue after an unfortunate gas-stove incident.) When a swimmer sees a new kind of "equipment,” it's natural to be skeptical.
But Dr. Tom assuaged much of my skepticism. He explained to me that this goggle knocks off upwards of 63% drag compared to a normal goggle, that this goggle was designed with 3D to accurately fit a person's eye socket (a process they refer to as I.Q. Fit), and that this goggle could potentially help prevent future Phelps-esque disasters from happening again. This unique profiling isn’t a gimmick – it’s a scientific way to address a number of problems.
“It’s a real change in the way we’ve developed goggles,” Dr. Tom said. “The main principal is we’re changing the shape of the goggle so water flows over it much more smoothly. When we were looking at our previous fastest goggle, the force of water hitting the top of that goggle is a little bit like two cans of Coke stacked up on top of each other, on top of the lens. It’s no wonder that sometimes the goggle would flip up. It’s no wonder the swimmers put so much strap tension into their goggles and create discomfort for the eye.”
I was listening to him talk, and just nodding along, like, “Yes! Goggles SHOULD be more designed to the contours of your face and eye-sockets. They should have a lower profile.” Dr. Tom went over some of the larger implications for this design.
“With this new profiling, we’ve reduced the force of water hitting the top by 63.4%,” Dr. Tom said. “By doing that, it means you can get away with a much lower strap tension, and the goggle is much less likely to tip off the face. It’s more secure. And just by changing your goggle, you can reduce total body drag by 2%. Just by changing your goggle.”
He even told me the color they chose – blue interior – gave swimmers the most feeling of “calm” and at-ease. (I myself wear blue goggles for just that reason.) And they made the reflective exterior so other competitors couldn’t see your eyes.
Now, I haven’t worn them. They might be terrible. But this is an exciting innovation for swimmers – to address this basic, fundamental problem of goggles flipping up mid-race. I'm reminded of something 1956 & 1960 Olympian George Breen said the other day. He told me in an interview, "The most important invention in swimming was the goggle. Chlorine used to kick the living daylights out of you."
But many current versions of goggles kick the living daylights out of you, too.
I remember spending three weeks as a ten-year-old, forcibly gouging out my cheekbones to make a pair of hard-plastic Swedish goggles fit my face. Every day in practice was a nightmare. I had little gouges of red cuts under my eyelids. I thought this was normal. I thought this was how goggles “were.”
“We’ve been able to use 3D scanning technology, we’ve accurately mapped the shape of a human head and created a cap that fits the shape of the human head,” Dr. Tom says. “It sounds obvious, but no one has really done it before.”
I know – this sounds like a big advertisement for Speedo. It’s not. I haven’t even worn their new goggles. But to me, it’s just a revolutionary concept -- form-fitting goggles and swim caps – that I can embrace. Because I’d rather look like an alien or superhero than spend 15 minutes behind the blocks, obsessively tightening and readjusting and worrying about my goggles. It’s an innovation that even an old curmudgeon like me can embrace.
After all, I’ve got the cheekbone gouges to prove it.